There Were No Survivors (INN-ISRAEL NATIONAL NEWS OP-ED) by Jack Engelhard 01/30/05)
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As we´re summoned to mark off another date in our calendar of
collective grief, 60 years of this redemption from Auschwitz, we
reflect upon the fading images in our photo albums and ask, where am
I in this picture? Of those of us who survived, is that enough, or
does it come with a price and a job description?
Have we done enough for those we left behind, and are we doing enough
to keep hoisting the flame of Zion from the residue of their ashes?
As another page is turned, their bloods continue to cry. From high
above, they witnessed the rebirth of Israel; and now this - Jews
being deported by Jews. Along with Mother Rachel, they weep.
Imagine this insult to their sacrifice, six million times over, for
that´s how their journey to the ovens began, by deportation. What a
If it has come to this, has any of us really survived? To be polite,
I must only speak for myself.
From one career move to the next, I had succeeded in passing as the
product of a typical American upbringing. Yes, I served in Israel,
and from here in the United States I continue to do so, in my own
fashion. But the job is not getting done, not by me and not by most
of my generation.
An editor for a large newspaper once asked where I was born. He
thought I´d say Cincinnati. I was that much of an American. There was
no trace in me of Toulouse, France - that´s the place - and there was
no hint in me of the date of my birth, July 20, 1940, a month after
Hitler invaded. Soon after, we were on the run.
The editor gasped. "What?" he said. "You´re a survivor?"
That just about threw me, too. Do I qualify?
I finally persuaded Sarah, my sister, to write it all down. Tell it
for the public, but first, tell it for me. As to my roots, I am a
At last as strangers in a strange land, my mother used to say, "We´re
the lucky ones." Very lucky. According to those who keep these
figures, 76,000 Jews were deported from France onward to the death
camps, with, in many cases, the French police serving resolutely
alongside the Gestapo.
This means that the four of us, my father, Noah, my mother, Ida, my
sister, Sarah, and myself, were among the very few who slipped the
camps, a whistle stop beyond. Not so lucky were other members of
Mother and Father´s family, all of them scattered throughout Europe,
soon to perish. Upon such remembrances, who can call himself a
survivor? Not my parents.
I was a baby when they had the bags packed by the door, as Vichy was
tightening the noose and round-ups of Jews were drawing nearer. I was
still a baby when my father said, "We´re going." And off we went as
fugitives into the wilderness of the Pyrenees, en route to Spain, if
Spain, or anyone, would have us.
I was not yet two and I was carried in a rucksack on my father´s
back. He had drilled two holes in it for my legs to fit through, eyes
forward. Sarah assures me that I seldom made the sounds of an infant,
as if I knew that we were being pursued by the Nazis as once we were
pursued by Pharaoh´s chariots.
Sarah was nine (and a Shirley Temple look-alike, only Sarah was more
beautiful) when all this was happening. She saw plenty as the escape
turned her romantic girlhood into a prey being hunted for the gas
chambers. As I´m reading Sarah´s manuscript, and what a story she has
to tell, I keep saying, "This really happened?"
Perhaps that´s why I turned to writing, to find what can´t be found,
to know what can´t be known, and to snatch the secrets of the child
who turned too quickly into manhood.
We now have a joke (is it permitted to joke?) about Sarah´s memories
of her baby brother throughout the adventure. She´ll write, for
instance, about the moment two Gestapo agents marched into the train
and demanded my father´s papers, which were not in order. My father
was stricken, my mother was near to passing out, and Jackie? "Jackie
Jackie slept through the Holocaust. But not really. The subconscious
Maybe I was happier not knowing that Sarah´s best friend in Toulouse,
Incarnation, the child who always begged Sarah to come out to play,
one day changed her mind and called Sarah a "dirty Jew." Do I have to
know this? Of course, because yesterday is still today and the past
is still the present, and besides, her story is my story.
Sarah, in her memoirs, reminds me that our father´s dear friend was a
priest high in the Catholic Church. They studied Talmud together.
This same priest was helpful to us and to many others when the time
came, as was my father, who dug into what was left of his wealth to
help save other Jews. Dad had that connection with the priest and who
knows how many lives they saved together.
In her narrative, Sarah mentions so many "coincidences" that these
can only be miracles. The stop on the train, for instance; as my
father was reaching for his papers that would surely give us away --
the Gestapo agent, who was already grinning for the catch he was
about to make, was diverted by a call from his partner on some other
urgent business, and thus we were saved - again and again.
But were we really saved? The Holocaust and the silent world around
it inflicted a portion of death even for the living. No, there were
When in your childhood your best friend calls you a dirty Jew, this
you don´t survive. When they keep calling us that in unison to this
very day, again we have not survived.
I recall this tattered foursome that we were, finally approaching a
church tucked somewhere in the Pyrenees. We had no idea what to
expect. A nun rushed out and greeted us seemingly in anger. She
approached and kissed my mother, who said, "Thank God." Weeping, the
nun said, "What God?"
Our destination was the United States of America. But there was no
room. Roosevelt´s America was full. Unlike the Saint Louis, the Ship
of the Damned, we got ourselves boarded on the now-legendary Serpa
Pinto, which got us to Philadelphia. The rules were that none of us
was to set foot on American soil.
This was adhered to literally. A plank of thick wood was stretched
from the ship to the buses that would take us to Montreal. A misstep
onto land could ship us right back.
We had arrived in Philadelphia on the first day of Passover, 1944. On
the second day of Passover we were in Montreal. A photo from the
Canadian archives shows us around a table giving thanks for
deliverance, then and now, but never will you see such gloomy
expressions for a feast. (IsraelNationalNews © 01/30/05)
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